Matthew Rooda, SwineTech co-founder and CEO, grew up in a family of pork producers and quickly learned the value of a good work ethic and a positive outlook on life. Through daily chores and everyday obstacles, Rooda was able to recognize the role that family, patience, and thinking outside the box played in the farm operations. Knowing there was never a moment that warranted an excuse because the livestock depended on him for safekeeping, Rooda pushed the limits when working on his family farm during his childhood. Often witnessing the innovation of his grandfather and father who sought solutions to benefit their operations. He quickly realized that a farmer wasn’t just a farmer, but rather a jack of all trades. They are expected to be the plumber, electrician, mechanic, carpenter, inventor, and just about anything else that is needed to sustain a farm. This translated into a natural ability to think outside of the box and solve real-life problems in pork production.
A Turning Point
Throughout High School, Rooda spent much of his time working for local pork producers. He helped with managing the nurseries, finishing operations, and also passionately sought to make improvements within the industry. While attending Hawkeye Community College in 2013, Rooda was offered the opportunity to serve as an assistant farm manager and farrowing manager at a farrow-to-finish farm in Waterloo, Iowa. It was here that Rooda battled the historic problem of piglet crushing to no avail. The team had implemented many of the available products and caregiving procedures, but nothing seemed to solve the problem. The farm could not afford to be staffed 24/7, and as a result, each morning Rooda would return to the farm to find dozens of crushed baby piglets. After graduating from Hawkeye Community College with his Associates of Liberal Arts Degree, Rooda transferred to the University of Iowa in pursuit of a degree in Genetics and Biotechnology with his best friend Abraham Espinoza, a Computer Science and Engineering student from Saltillo, Mexico. Within just one semester of study, Rooda received a few phone calls encouraging him to create a solution to piglet crushing. After conducting research and gathering industry benchmarking statistics, Rooda and Espinoza presented their idea at the John Pappajohn Founders Club Fair. They were awarded 1st place for “Most Likely to Succeed and Most Viable Business” and a grant of $1,500 to further pursue their research in developing a solution.
The Beginnings of SwineTech
Rooda and Espinoza sought after more information, they headed to the World Pork Expo in 2015 to conduct countless interviews. During which they found 92% of pork producers were actively looking for a solution to piglet crushing. Recognizing the urgency to solve the problem, Rooda and Espinoza joined the Iowa Startup Accelerator as one of nine companies, out of hundreds of applicants, to help with their research, development, and overall business acumen. A month into the program, they partnered with John Rourke who was able to successfully develop an algorithm to detect the squeal of a piglet being crushed within a few short weeks. Realizing the importance of their product through the Iowa Startup Accelerator, Rooda and Espinoza opted out of attending school for the fall semester to focus on the development of their product. Within this rigorous 90 day program, they created a prototype capable of detecting a lay on. They managed to continue their education by attending night classes that spring.
A Strategic Pivot
In 2016, the team shifted their focus to the sow. With the intellectual ability of a pig and their capability of learning new tactics in mind, they sought after developing a wearable and monitor that was capable of getting the sow to rise; however, by testing many different attachment options (belts, collars, etc.) they quickly learned the sow disliked the various attachment methods of the wearable. The team pivoted to the idea of using a medical adhesive patch that contained the wearable within. By testing over 60 different types of adhesives, they were able to find one that could withstand a week of wear and tear.
It also gained the cooperation of the sows who never tried to remove it themselves. With this new method of attaching the wearable monitor to the sow, they could now proceed with creating a method to safely and humanely get the sow to stand up.
Rooda, Espinoza, and Rourke looked at many different methods of positive reinforcement with no prevail. In every test, the sows showed no signs of standing up or even the slightest urge to move. Classical conditioning, the process of linking two stimuli together to produce a learned response, was too time consuming and was deemed by the industry as infeasible for pork producers. Thus, the team looked at operant conditioning, the association of a particular behavior with a specific consequence, which later resulted in the idea of replicating the commercially available dog training collar. Through tests, they concluded that although this method worked, it was much stronger than what was necessary.
Ethical Principles in Action
The team wanted to move away from the use of dog collars and cattle prods and transitioned to methods widely used and accepted for human applications. This ultimately led to the TENS unit, a chiropractic tool for muscle and nerve pain, the safest and most effective solution! Although used on humans, there were concerns about what effects an electric impulse might have on a sow’s behavior and productivity. To address these concerns, the team met with leading experts in animal welfare and conducted behavioral trials at Kansas State University. This validated that the TENS stimulus created no more stress than a person using his hands to encourage a sow to stand up! Nor did it affect any production parameters such as feed or water intake, piglets weaned, average wean weight, etc.
After creating a prototype that could identify a piglet getting crushed and successfully alerting the sow to stand up, the team found that far too often they could not accurately identify what pen the piglet was in. To solve this problem they began to implement artificial intelligence in the form of a machine learning algorithm. This allowed them to train the monitors on what a squeal in their pen would sound like. By incorporating a mesh network, they were able to allow the microphones throughout the room to work together in pinpointing a piglet’s location. In addition to the mesh network, sensors are used to track a series of metrics to ensure the correct sow will be alerted to stand up.
In 2017, the SwineTech team had effectively created a product that could detect a piglet getting crushed, achieving an accuracy of greater than 94%. This led to a reduction of up to 59% in piglet crushing after the first three days of the piglets’ lives. Co-Founders Matthew Rooda and Abraham Espinoza were recognized as one of Forbes 30 under 30 most promising companies in Manufacturing and Industry. SwineTech also received awards from MIT, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the American Farm Bureau Federation for its innovative product, SmartGuard.
Looking to the Future
Today, SwineTech takes pride in their ability to be the eyes and ears in the farrowing house by protecting tens of thousands of litters each year. Through their continuous efforts to improve the productivity, sustainability, and overall welfare of the pork industry they hope to one day digitize agricultural data, offer advanced real-time analytics, and provide applications for better management of farrowing operations. Data collected from SwineTech’s SmartGuard device provides key information and metrics of the sow’s behavior, health, and environment that she lives in. Allowing producers to know more than ever before and predict life-changing events and behaviors, such as the detection of respiratory illness, time of birthing, and the prevention of stillborns. SwineTech has and will continue to enable researchers, producers, and other stakeholders in the industry to provide the very best care for pigs all over the world.